The Benefits of Writing 1: Know Thyself

Somewhere during the first week of school, I follow the advice of TED Talk speaker Simon Sinek – I start with why.

I ask students to come up with reasons to read and write – no school-related reasons are allowed. I let them go at it in small groups. What real-world reasons to read and write can they come up with that have nothing to do with school? I tell them to focus on specific types of documents anyone might need to read and write and specific benefits of reading and writing. I’ll focus here on the writing half of the chart we usually draw on my board or on a big piece of craft paper to hang on my wall.

Students actually come up with quite a few concrete reasons to write in terms of specific documents, but in my experience, students are not great at knowing the benefits of writing for them. What writing can do for them as a person. And that’s a pity, because although many students hate writing (usually, sadly, because of how it is foisted on them at school) and view it as something they are always doing for someone else, writing has a many benefits for our students – for anyone really – that we seldom talk about.

So for all of this school year, I would like to use this Moving Writers space talk about the benefits of writing – mostly non-academic benefits of writing. I want to write about ways to help students experience those benefits in tangible, almost immediate ways that might take only the length of a bell-ringer at the start of class. I want to show how you can leverage those benefits to motivate student writing.

I would like to start now with a benefit that has largely slid out of view under the reign of text-evidence-based, impersonal “simulated research” essays like the ones that have dominated many classrooms since the Common Core came into our lives.

This benefit of writing is simple: writing helps helps us know ourselves.

This may sound obvious. It may seem like no big deal: after all, aren’t our TikTok obsessed students already a little too narcissistic? But self-obsession and a desire for Likes and Shares and Followers online are not the same as self-knowledge.

Many students claim they have nothing to write about. (I sometimes think our reliance on generic prompts is a way of getting around this claim.)

I set out early in my career to convince students that they did, indeed, have things to write about. When I read Ray Bradbury’s book Zen and the Art of Creative Writing, I discovered his advice to write about what you love and what you hate. I translated that into two activities that I have students write at the beginning of their writer’s notebooks every year. I have written about them elsewhere, including in a book, but they bear repeating.

The first is an Enthusiasm Map – for the stuff you love. Here are the directions: Write “Enthusiasm Map” at the top of the page. Put your name at the center. All around your name, create a map/web/list of everything you are enthusiastic about: people, places, video games, music, food, events, books, movies, TV shows, hobbies, sports, etc. Use lines to connect the things that are connected somehow. Here is a sample:

The second is a Frustration Map, for all the things you hate. Here are my directions for students: Write Frustration Map at the top of the page, and then put your name in the middle. List everything that ticks you off, large or small, important or trivial. Try to focus on people’s behaviors rather than just naming them. ​

Here is a sample Frustration Map. It has, I might add, several amusing features on it.

After many years of doing just the two maps, I came to realize that their might be more nuance if I added a couple of other maps. I realized that many science fiction/dystopian writers and horror writers write about their fears. So I added the Worry Map. Here are the directions. Worry Map: Make a list of everything that gives you some anxiety. (If you don’t want me to read this one, just write “Don’t Read!” at the top of the page, and I’ll just note that you did it without reading it. If you do let me read it, know that if you share anything truly frightening about your home life, I am required to report it! I am willing to do that, but you should know it’s a possibility.)​

I don’t have a student sample of this map because of its sensitive nature. And I was a bit… worried about doing the Worry Map, but so far, nothing negative has come of it. Also, while I let students share with each other and the class items from their other maps, we do not share items from the worry map. Just to be safe!

I also added a fourth map: the Wonder Map. Here are the student directions: Wonder Map: a list or web of everything you wonder about, silly (If Mickey’s a mouse and Pluto’s a dog – what’s Goofy?) or serious (how can the universe go on forever?) or in-between, or that gives you a sense of wonder (starry skies and fire flies and…).​ This map usually creates a lot of great discussion. For instance, I discovered that many students – big surprise – are interested in life after death. I also discovered many students suffer under the delusion that Goofy is a cow. Silly students – he’s an anthropomorphic dog!

I teach Creative Writing 1 and 2 at my school as semester courses. Some students wanted to take the courses again but the computer system wouldn’t allow it. So with help from my principal, I was able to add Creative Writing 3 (a year long course) to my roster. But what about the maps? Some students had already had me for 9th grade and Creative Writing 1 and 2! I had to think of more maps! Here are the ones I came up with – never before seen outside my classroom!

Moving Map: ​What things in life, movies, books, music, etc. particularly move you? What kinds of events or ideas do you find profound and/or touching?​

Power Map. Who has power over you? Who do you have power over? What kinds of power are good? What types of power are bad? Write any ideas about how you relate to the idea of power! ​

Fear Map:​ Go to full-throttle horror mode! What do you find scary – keeps-you-up-at-night scary! List things that really freak you out!​

Problem Map: Brainstorm problems you are having or problems you see in the world around you, big and small, tragic and trivial.​

I just finished reading The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams. And so this week my creative writing students will be adding one more map, The Hope Map: What do you hope for yourself? For the world? If you could visualize the very best things that could happen – what would they be?

If your students do even the first two of these maps – Enthusiasm and Frustration – they will get a fairly good sense of their own likes and dislikes, which is a pretty good record of who they are. If they do four of them, they will have an even better sense of themselves. Some of my Creative Writing 3 students did all 8 of the maps this year! They really have a pretty good sense of themselves! Obviously, these students now have a lot to write about as long as I give them autonomy over their choice of topics. If they came up with even 10 topics on each of four maps (most students come up with far more), they would have 40 topics. Multiply that by just four possible genres (narrative, comparison, expository, and argumentative), and a student has 160 potential essays on their hands!

I also had the realization this past Friday, as I showed my classes the list of books I’ve read so far this year to get them ready for Reading Workshop time, that I read based on my own maps. I read about my own enthusiasms. I read about ways to deal with my frustrations. I read about the things I worry about – hoping to find solutions. I read about what I wonder about.

And as for writing itself, when students write from these maps, amazing things happen. They can expand or deepen their interest in an enthusiasm – maybe get ideas for a possible career! They can reconsider their own point of view when they really examine a frustration in depth. They can find a way through their worries. They can end up researching something they wonder about or enhancing their own sense of wonder.

Because one of the greatest wonders in the universe is who we are as people. Writing can help us figure it out.

Images via Created by David Lee Finkle.

How do you help students find things to write about? How do you help writing become self-discovery? Connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at

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